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Enduring Lessons From The Outback

Photos by Kelly Rinella Enduring Lessons From The Outback

It is still dark – 5:15 a.m. to be exact – as I wake sleepy bikers to prepare for another day on the road. “It’s a beautiful day bikers. Time to get going. Can I hear some noise in there?” I give my standard speech as I move from tent to tent, but I hear nothing.

“Alright bikers, time to get moving. I need to hear sounds of movement in there.” But all I hear is some giggling from the tent next door, and then I realize – they have done it to me again – the tent I am shaking only has luggage in it.

These teenagers are amazingly good humored on a dark and chilly morning. They would struggle to get up by noon on a typical summer morning back in Illinois, but somehow here in the Upper Peninsula they manage to down breakfast, unchain bikes, bring their tires up to pressure, break camp and hit the road in just 60 minutes.

There is something about being OUT, being AWAY, being UNPLUGGED that gets their juices flowing. Whether they are backpacking the Appalachian Trail, biking the Cabot Trail or canoeing the Au Sable River, they shift into a different gear. Not higher, certainly not faster, just different.

Canoes When teens float the Au Sable River, I ask them, “What is the difference between the river and the highway?” They see their canoes make no trace on God’s stream, unlike their high-emission trips on manmade interstates. They typically determine their own destinations, but this stream only takes them where it wants to go. They learn much about God’s care and provision and timing when they slow down to the water’s pace.

And when they explore God’s world up close and personal, they see things and experience things they would normally miss. Life is simpler. Life is slower. They eat, they sleep and they travel – by path, by road or by stream.

Teens learn lessons here that they cannot learn in cyber space or in cyber time, but they must . . . go . . . slow. There is no other option. Going slowly leads to listening; they discover that God really does speak. Unplugging leads to shared conversation and shared life; they discover that community really can exist. And in that community, lessons are learned, lives are shaped and futures are molded.

When we biked 1,200 miles from Greenville to Estes Park, Colorado, I shared a two-man tent with Mark*, one of my students. Our first night together in the tent, just before we drifted off to sleep, I prayed out loud. I did not “announce” that I was going to do this; I did not make some big production out of it. I just prayed a simple prayer before I fell asleep, like I often do. Neither of us made any comment, and we slept.

Each night on the 18-day trip, I prayed before we fell asleep. One night after I prayed, I was surprised to hear Mark pray out loud. I had never heard Mark pray before; I’m not sure Mark had ever prayed out loud before, but this became our pattern from that night forward. Years later, I realized that the disciples had not asked Jesus, “Teach us HOW to pray,” but rather, “Teach us TO pray.” A whole year of sermons or youth group talks would not come close to matching what Mark and I experienced through our nightly ritual.

And this is the way teens learn when they are forced to go beyond their normal limits, forced out of their comfort zones, forced into stress and risk and difficulty. They grow by stretching, and nothing stretches them quite like a physically demanding trip with their peers.

Once they have endured four days of backpacking in the rain, or climbing a mountain on their bikes, or battling relentless winds in their canoes, or living in ultra-primitive conditions serving in a third world country, other hardships pale in comparison. They say, “If I can do THAT – then passing this test, making this team, resisting this temptation is certainly doable.”

Bring those biking and canoeing teens together for a 20-year reunion and you may be surprised to hear what they talk about. They might mention prom or football games or the funny things that happened in algebra, but the life-changing stories, the career-shaping stories and the marriage-saving stories will center on the bike trip where they learned, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”

Written by Greg Groves '80. Greg has led nearly 40 adventures that challenge youth through backpacking, biking, canoeing and more. While serving on the pastoral staff at the Greenville Free Methodist Church, he also holds a master’s of divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary and trains others, including GC students, in youth ministry.

This story was published on July 03, 2014